$2.5 million in grants will help rural stations complete DTV transition

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced six grants totaling more than $2.5 million Wednesday as part of its Public Television Digital Transition Grant program. “These investments will help public television stations serving substantially rural communities make the transition to digital broadcasts,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Patrice Kunesh, who announced the grants in Bethel, Alaska. The FCC required all broadcasters to convert full-power transmitters to digital signals by June 2009, but stations have until 2015 to convert repeaters and low-power TV signals. The largest grant, $750,000, goes to the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority. The network will convert its television production studio in Charleston from analog to HD digital.

Redefining public media for the future

Public media is made up of hundreds of storefronts in communities large and small, each of which has a unique window into America, its people and their stories. These storefronts — local public TV and radio stations — have built public media’s greatest asset: our unique relationships with listeners and viewers, local businesses and governments, and anchor institutions in the arts, philanthropy, education and social welfare. Yet at Public Radio Capital we increasingly hear from public media executives facing competitive and financial challenges that threaten their stations’ economic foundations and thus their effectiveness. Let’s face it: The public media business model isn’t changing. It has already changed in dramatic ways.

USDA grants back equipment upgrades at 10 rural pubTV stations

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $3.2 million in grants to 10 pubTV operators serving rural areas, assisting with equipment upgrades that will replace aging equipment, strengthen broadcast signals, or build capacity for digital production. The USDA grants are earmarked for digital conversion and were awarded as part of a larger package of federal aid to 24  projects improving broadband access, telecommunications infrastructure and public TV’s digital broadcasts. Each of the pubTV operators have already converted their primary transmitters to digital. In some cases, the grants will help pay for upgrades of older, analog equipment, enhance  their master control operations or strengthen their digital  signals. Since the elimination of the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, which backed technical upgrades of both public TV and radio stations until Congress zeroed it out in 2011, the USDA funds have become increasingly important for rural pubTV stations.

An oasis for the ears in Trans-Pecos

Five ways Marfa Public Radio is different from your nearest NPR-member station:

1. The drivetime host reports on rush-hour traffic of five vehicles, “some turning left, some turning right and some going straight ahead … with one forlorn pronghorn along the way.”

2. Drivers crossing a near-empty 152-mile stretch of Interstate 10 without Sirius XM send in donations to thank the station for being a “surprise oasis.”

3. A Mexican rancher stops by to say that he picks up the signal deep in Chihuahua, more than 100 miles south of the border.

On the road with a circuit-riding Native American radio engineer

Lakota radio engineer Alex Lookingelk rides the highways of Wyoming, Montana and North and South Dakota, covering as many as 5,000 miles a month in his Chevy S-10 pickup. In the past seven years, Lookingelk has become known as a circuit-riding engineer for the public radio stations on the reservations and an all-around advisor to the stations. “He’ll say, ‘I have to go over to KGVA in Montana’ — that’s about a 12-hour drive,'” says Frank Blythe, executive director of Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), based in Lincoln, Neb. “He handles most of the Upper Plains’ technical problems and he also gets involved in the politics.” On his long drives, Lookingelk has plenty of time to chew on his worries about reservation radio and the tough-to-beat circumstances and habits that afflict it.

Rural translators threatened with loss of their frequencies

Translators — the lonely relay-runners of broadcasting — are a rural institution under siege. While pubcasters use hundreds of them to reach remote pockets of their audience, they are being bumped off, one by one, by competitors for the frequencies that they use. In both radio and TV — particularly radio — they’re sitting ducks, vulnerable to being shoved aside by any applicants for full-service stations on the same frequencies. And religious broadcasters are filing apps by the hundreds. In TV, many translators will soon be knocked off the air as sheriffs, fire companies and DTV stations start using the UHF channels the FCC has given to them.

Coming of public radio to rural areas can be rough on both listeners and broadcasters

With about 90 percent of the population covered by its signals, public radio has reached all the ”easy” regions and is now filling in the gaps, usually in less-populated areas. Even when there’s money to add repeating transmitters, however, there are often technical glitches. The furor has died down somewhat in recent weeks, but when public radio first came to Chillicothe, Mo., in August 1993, hundreds of people wanted it to go back where it came from. In an area where households without cable were accustomed to picking up Kansas City Royals games and other programming on weak signals from TV stations 70 miles away, the new 100 kw FM signal was so much closer that it blasted the ballgames right off the tube. Though the outrage was new to Chillicothe, similar cases of ”blanketing interference” often had occurred and subsided elsewhere and will arise again in other remote areas as public radio (or kind of station) fills the gaps in the national map of FM service.